Viewed Sideways: a collection of essays by Donald Richie
D. Michael Ramirez II
December 30, 2011
is an excellent answer to two major questions on Japanese culture: 1) What can one appreciate about Japanese culture? and, 2) How does one go about doing it? Through his writing, Richie gives readers an answer that works for both questions: Be as broad as you can.
Richie’s breadth shows in the range of topics in Viewed Sideway
’s rainy-day style of journaling, the zuihitsu
(the do-and-say-as-you-please essay) format. The 37 essays included in this work are divided into five larger sections: “The Larger View,” “Culture and Style,” “On Expression,” “On Film” and “The View from Inside.” The flexibility and intimacy of this format allows Richie’s comments to be arranged in both a critical and literary fashion.
For readers to properly appreciate the depth of this work, they must bring their own knowledge of Japanese culture to Richie’s interpretations. This is not a light task. Accordingly, any reader who seriously responds to the challenge of Viewed Sideways
will become familiar with the galaxy of objects in Japanese culture. Richie points us through a dazzling array of topics: kabuki, Noh, kagura
, the Tachibana sect of tantric Buddhism, the films of Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa. All these topics and much more are touched upon in the space of two chapters, “On Expression“ and “On Film.” In addition, readers who are experienced and have knowledge of Japan will certainly find the density of Richie’s commentary refreshing and enjoy testing their own wisdom and interpretations against the views of one of the premier scholars of Japanese culture.
In total, Viewed Sideways
serves as a heartfelt reminder of how much fun it is to be an observer of life, art and culture. Since he is writing about things taken from the totality of life in Japan, Richie does not limit himself to one topic of discussion. As such, he touches upon both the high and the low, the sacred and the profane, the East and the West. For example, he analyzes the zest of pop culture and the strangely humorous and uniquely worded English phrases in “The Tongue of Fashion.” In “Traditional Japanese Design,” Richie takes up aesthetic principles such as mono no aware
that have come to define essential characteristics of Japanese art and literature produced over the last 1,000 years.
The greatest asset of the essays in Viewed Sideways
is that they are written out of a sense of pleasure. This sense of pleasure is most expressed in the final two essays, “An Alternative Way of Thought” and “My View.” In the former, Richie takes us through his personal experience in meeting with Dr. Daizetsu Suzuki, and in the latter, he describes to readers the view from his residence looking onto Shinobazu Pond in Ueno. It is here where readers can enjoy Richie intimately describing his view through his own personal blend of Western and Japanese aesthetics. It is in these final essays, told with the richness of age and the benefit of reflection, that Richie embodies the ideal that in addition to our similarities, it is our all too human differences that make us interesting and reveal a deeper human structure that is substantial and challenging.